Can you have a holiday in Orlando without setting foot in Disney? Andy Mossack discovers there is a another Orlando beyond just theme parks.
Skipper Bob is warming to his task as we glide through a narrow canal into the vastness of Lake Maitland. “Now if we’re really lucky, we might spot one or two wealthy home owners in their natural habitat.”
That gets a hearty laugh from all of us, getting royally entertained by Bob’s smooth repartee. We’re halfway through our hour’s cruise around Winter Park’s lakes and I’m loving every minute of it.
Winter Park is a beautiful area in Orange County, just a 30 minute drive from downtown Orlando. The oldest town in central Florida, it was founded in the late 19th century by wealthy New York business magnates seeking some winter sun and built impressive estates around the lakes.
“Over there on that piece of land sticking out, is the Isle of Sicily” I stifle the urge to compete with the laughs and mention the original lies quite a few miles further east.
There has been a boat tour here since the early 1900s and although the landscape has changed, there are still some magnificent properties to gaze at and more than a few remnants of a bygone era.
Rollins College campus passes on our left, one of the most beautiful colleges in the country, and the iconic Langford Resort Hotel, once the 50s magnet for presidents and celebrities from Sinatra to the Reagans, now part of a condo development.
Back on dry land, it’s a short hop over to the Morse Museum containing the world’s biggest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass. Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the museum holds an extraordinary collection, but it’s own story is perhaps just as extraordinary.
From humble beginnings as a small art gallery on the Rollins College campus in 1942, founder Jeannette and her husband Hugh McKean organized an exhibition of some of Tiffany’s pieces in 1955. However, following a devastating fire at Laurelton Hall the artist’s former Long Island estate in 1957, they decided to visit and salvage as much as they could. From then on, they were fully committed to collecting and restoring as much of Tiffany’s work as they possibly could.
Today the museum contains enormous amounts of Tiffany’s work as its centrepiece, together with fascinating relics salvaged from Laurelton Hall.
My visit to The Morse is the perfect prelude to exploring the rest of the town, a journey of surprising discovery. Its hidden courtyards, bistros and artisan shops and galleries offering up a canvass of high end bohemia. I stroll down Park Avenue and stumble across The Ancient Olive, hidden away in a tiny courtyard behind a palm tree. Over 60 different varieties of infused olive oils and balsamics in separate urns waiting to be tasted before buying.
My kind of place.
I’m terribly torn between the cilantro and roasted onion oil or chocolate balsamic and basil.
Passing by a couple of art galleries I spot The Briar Patch, a bistro said to be a frequent haunt of Paul McCartney. A delicious toasted club sandwich later and I’m ready to move on.
For those of you with green fingers, Harry P Leu Gardens is worth stopping by on the way back to Orlando. 50 acres of tropical flora and fauna and a huge collection of camellias and roses.
No trip to Florida is complete without venturing into an Everglades experience and fortunately, from Orlando it’s not much more than a 40 minute drive away.
This vast wetland of swamp, marshes and rivers is home to alligators, long horn cattle and birdlife aplenty, and frankly there is nowhere better to see it all than from an air boat.
I’ve come to Wild Florida to get a private air boat ride with skipper Steve who has over a 100,000 acres of prime wetlands to choose from.
“What do you want to see Andy? Bald eagles, vultures, egret, gators?”
“All of them would be my choice Steve.”
“Yup, we can do that.”
This is my kind of place.
Steve tells me he spends his weekends fishing and hunting, and he’s a fire fighter too, so I reckon I’m in safe hands here as we fly across the marsh.
Five minutes in and he spots a pair of eagles perched on a branch. 5 minutes later and he cuts the motor dead.
Nothing but silence.
“err, all OK Steve?”
“Get up and stand over on the side of the boat Andy, there’s something you need to see.”
I get up and peer at where he’s pointing; just a few feet away a pair of reptilian eyes just peeking out of the water look up at me.
“That gator is around 12 feet long..Quick way of working out is just convert the inches from her eyes to her snout to feet.”
“That’s good to know” I answer, but I’m actually thinking great, if I get attacked by an alligator, at least I can work out how long it is before it eats me.
“She has some kids too just behind”
And they were indeed. Four miniature killing machines-to-be.
The hour speeds by and back at the dock I really feel like I’ve tasted some authentic Florida. Wild Florida has an excellent animal park too with over 200 animals and a conservation programme for a number of endangered species. I spend a fascinating hour in the company of a sloth, which doesn’t get too exciting as she’s a sloth and sloths move very, very slowly.
Slow is most definitely not a description for my next adventure a few miles further on. Forever Florida boasts almost 5,000 acres of prime ranch land. This is essentially a working ranch, and they offer a horseback riding which can turn into an overnight cowboy camp experience too. I’m here for something a little less serious though; zip lining.
Tony, Johnny and Melissa take me on a mini safari deep into the forest where I find a nest of purpose built wooden towers stretching high above the forest canopy.
“All our animals here are free to roam” says Tony as we climb an endless set of steps to the top of the main tower. “No feeding from us, they fend for themselves. Trust me, it’s an animal buffet for the predators”
Perhaps this is their secret I think to myself, I’m part of the food chain.
We reach the summit and all is revealed; 7 zip line runs, one of them over 650 foot long.
“Once you start there’s no going back” Is that a sinister smile I see on Tony’s face?
“We got your back though”
Truth is, it is fantastic fun. Very safe. But high speed adrenalin all the same.
I return to the main tower unscathed to fly the Roller Coaster. This is a first. A zip line roller coaster complete with dips and tight turns. It takes 90 seconds but trust me, it feels like a lifetime.
Back in one piece in my room at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando I had some down time before heading out for an evening at Disney Springs. The Four Seasons is technically within the gates of Walt Disney World resort, but not actually in the theme park, so my story theme remains intact!
Disney Springs is an outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment complex which was formerly Downtown Disney. There is plenty going on for every age group, and after a very impressive dinner at Morimoto Asia I am looking forward to watching La Nouba, a Cirque du Soleil performance at their custom-made theatre.
It is an unrelenting 90 minute journey of high octane live music and choreography featuring some truly sensational acrobatics.
I’m feeling quite righteous now. Four days in and still not set foot in a theme park. You might say Premium Outlet Shopping is the retail equivalent of a theme park, but really it’s a real opportunity to grab a bargain or two. There are two big outlets in Orlando, on International Drive and Vineland Avenue.
Both have famous designer and name brand retailers offering discounts of up to 65%. You can apply for free VIP coupons to get even more savings, but my advice is to head for the clearance rack first every time. Read my guide to Orlando Outlet Shopping for more insider tips.
Can you have a holiday in Orlando without theme parks? The answer is a resounding yes. There is plenty to do within a half hour drive that doesn’t entail paying a fortune and then waiting in a line for hours on end.
Orlando is also perfectly positioned to access both of Florida’s coasts in an hour; The Gulf Coast to the west and Miami and The Keys to the east.
All images except Morse Museum (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about Orlando beyond just theme parks
Room rates from $479 per night. Golf fees from $65.
Air boat tours from $26.50 Half day adventure package $73 including air boat, wildlife park, hands-on alligator demonstration and basket lunch.
Forever Florida is open 9am – 5pm daily. Zip Line safaris are $79.99 for 2 hours
British Airways flies daily from Gatwick to Orlando. Flights start from £448 return, including all taxes and charges. For reservations, visit ba.com/Orlando or call 0344 493 0787
A good all round eaterie in downtown Orlando, a city too often bypassed by the masses for International Drive.
Outstanding asian fare on offer at Disney Springs. You will need to book in advance.
The locals’ favourite diner for decades. No frills just good old fashioned diner food. I loved it.
Getting to London Gatwick Airport:
Gatwick Express, the non-stop rail-air service between Victoria station and Gatwick Airport, departs every 15 minutes with a journey time of 30 minutes. Gatwick Express is the fastest and best way to travel between central London and Gatwick Airport with return tickets starting from £27.40. With an ongoing 10% discount, it is always cheaper to buy your ticket online at www.gatwickexpress.com